This year, India can, it seems, look forward to good rains. Last year’s monsoon could easily have slipped into a full-scale drought but was saved by exceptionally heavy rains in September. Even so, almost one-third of the country received far too little rain and has been left parched, with water resources running low. A good monsoon now is essential for agriculture and for the replenishment of reservoirs and aquifers. The India Meteorological Department in a forecast issued on Friday declared that this year’s monsoon was most likely to be ‘normal,’ with nationwide rainfall between 96 per cent and 104 per cent of the long-term average. Using a statistical model, it predicted a 46 per cent probability of the monsoon turning out that way. The met agency estimated a 27 per cent chance of the monsoon being ‘below normal,’ with rainfall between 90 per cent and 96 per cent of the long-term average, and just a 10 per cent chance of a deficient monsoon with rains less than 90 per cent of the long-term average. A forecast from the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, using an advanced dynamical climate model that simulates the complex interactions between land, oceans and atmosphere, has indicated that the monsoon could see above average rains (104 per cent of the long-term average, with an error bar of five percentage points). The South Asian Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF), which met earlier this month in Nepal, struck a similar note in its consensus statement. The monsoon rainfall for South Asia would “most likely be within the normal range with a slight tendency towards the higher side of the normal range.”
But the SASCOF consensus statement also warned of below normal rains over some north-western and southern parts of the subcontinent. That is worrying, considering that many States in those areas fared badly in the last monsoon as well. However, statistical as well as dynamical models are known to have limitations in forecasting the distribution of monsoon rainfall geographically, and over time. It is not clear, therefore, how much skill exists in predicting which parts of the country will get more or less rain this far in advance of the monsoon. But far more vital than improving those predictive capabilities is learning to live with the inevitable variability of monsoons. Ways to store rain water and recharge aquifers; ensuring rational water use in agriculture, towns and cities for residential and industrial purposes; and encouraging water recycling and reuse are crucial. The alternative is to make water availability a dangerous gamble on the monsoon.